Saturday, November 29, 2014

Political Order and Political Decay, by Francis Fukuyama

Political Order andPolitical Decay is the second volume in Francis Fukyama’s effort to account for the nature and functioning of political systems (for my review of the first volume, see here). Despite the subtitle, it is less a history of modern political order than an attempt to theorize why political institutions work and don’t work. Fukuyama posits three dimensions of political order: the strength of the state, the rule, and the accountability of government to the governed. Three major categories of social influences shape these dimensions and the interactions among them. These are economic growth, social mobilization, and political ideas and legitimacy.

Behind the growth of the state lies a characteristic of human nature, the tendency of human beings to cooperate based on kinship and reciprocity. The evolution of political order entails moving away from service to oneself and one’s own, from patrimonial government to impersonal systems of authority.  Viewing political progress in this way places Fukuyama within the tradition of Max Weber: bureaucracy does not have the negative implications that it does in much common usage, but is a rational and goal-directed organization of behavior.  Fukuyama’s contributions to this Weberian perspective might lie in his attention to the dimension of accountability, of the explicit recognition that bureaucracies can be evaluated by how well they serve some set of public interests, and in his observation that states and their bureaucracies can only be accountable to the extent that they are subject to laws as well as carry out laws.

Fukuyama sees political order as a balance among his three dimensions. In the first volume, he described Chinese imperial governance as an early well-developed state that ruled by law but that was not itself under the law, and in this second book he traces that heritage to the challenges of modern China, which retains a strong state, but is not yet fully accountable to its population.  Nevertheless, China recovered from the colonial challenge of the West because it retained an ingrained political order. Other Asian nations that originally emerged under Chinese influence were also fairly successful in responding to Western pressures, especially Japan, which was able to integrate a strong state with political influences from Europe and America. By contrast, the nations of Africa have been notably unsuccessful because no cohesive state existed in them before the Europeans disrupted the Africans’ largely tribal organizations without creating deep-rooted and widely-accepted patterns of authority. Western colonialism was generally more successful in the Americas, especially where settler populations largely replaced pre-existing ones. The Americas, however, had varying outcomes, in Fukuyama’s view because their histories resulted from combinations of different European legacies, unique geographical and social contexts, and decisions of policy-makers.

Fukuyama is less appreciative of the early political history of the United States than are many other historical commentators. He views the extension of male suffrage in this country in the nineteenth century as the growth of democratic accountability before the emergence of a strong central state, producing clientelism. This perspective leads him to an enthusiastic appraisal of Progressive Era reforms, such as the civil service and unaccountable federal bureaucracies, which he presents as professionally dedicated to national-well being. He sees the governmental stalemates of the present as the consequence of the recapture of government by a multitude of special interests, creating a “vetocracy” of pressure groups that push the bureaucracies in different directions and prevent a strong, professionalized government from operating autonomously.
I was less impressed with this second book than with the first. This one does incorporate a wide range of information, but sometimes too much, so that it seems like Fukuyama was trying to work in whatever he happened to be reading at the time of writing. While the three dimensions of political order did offer a useful way of conceptualizing at the most abstract level, there were so many elements within the three kinds of influences that the schema often appeared to explain everything and nothing. When discussing why Costa Rica has been a successful nation since the middle of the twentieth century and Argentina has been much less successful, for example, Fukuyama is left telling us that Costa Rican politicians made good decisions and those of Argentina bad ones. That may well be so, but it is not much of an explanation.

The latter-day Progressivism embraced by the author ignores the New Class argument that self-controlling state bureaucracies do not necessarily serve some objective pubic good, but are themselves political actors.  Even when agency officials do not seek to benefit their own kin and allies, the dedication to organizational interests often forms a tribal commitment. In his enthusiasm for the autonomous, non-patrimonial state, Fukuyama overlooks the point that governments and government agencies are not just more or less accountable to their populations: the authorities are self-promoting parts of the population.  They may be all the more dangerous precisely because they do not see their agencies as pursuing narrow self-interest, but as enlightened rulers who have the expertise to decide what is good for everyone. When bureaucratic progressivism produces sections of the population who can set themselves up as experts on how everyone should live and what everyone should think  “accountability” shifts its meaning from representatives being accountable to an electorate to social technicians obtaining public assent to the technicians’ designs for a shared future.


I am not sure, then, that the impasses in US political life today are necessarily due to a “vetocracy” that impedes the salubrious decision-making of an active central government.  Rather, I think it is because a highly centralized American state has brought together groups within our population who have vastly different and even opposing ideas about what would constitute the general good on the major issues of the day. If autonomous agencies would have the power to make the decisions, the bureaucratic power would not make those decisions any less partisan.

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